The Augurs of the Temple

In my 8th grade ancient history class one of the great questions of the year involves whether or not one believes that Greece or Rome was the superior civilization.  The students usually get into heated discussions on the issue and seem quite excited by the question–until they discover that they have to write a long essay about it for the final exam.  Somehow, this dampens their ardor.

Comparisons between Greece and Rome can always yield fruit.  Each civilization has significant primary source documentation.  Their development overlaps and departs at points like a figure eight.  Both civilizations had similar climates, were right near the Mediterranean, with mountains forming a large part of the topography.  Both civilizations started out a city-states and transitioned from kings/tyrants (in the technical sense of the word) to a republic/democracy at almost exactly the same time.

But despite these similarities, Rome grew into one of the largest global empires of all time and Greece stayed within its narrow confines for the vast majority of its history and never expanded as Rome did.  I thought of this question recently because Michael Rostovtzeff raised it in the early pages of his book on Rome.*  He saw more similarity between Greece and Rome than others, and so had to account for the differences in their historical development in ways that those who see more difference between the two could ignore.

I agree with Rostovtzeff’s rejection of purely mechanical or physical explanations.  Some argue that geography can explain the difference.  Greece’s geography hemmed them in and forced the creation of independent city-states, whereas Italy’s geography allowed for more expansion.  But Rostovtzeff points out that both areas had relatively the same interaction with mountains and the Mediterranean.  Italy’s soil had an advantage, but not a great enough advantage to explain Rome’s expansion.  And while Greece’s topography had more mountains to contend with, occasionally certain city-states built empires, showing that geography itself cannot explain the difference.

He then goes on to assert that we can explain Rome’s expansion, and Greece’s relative lack of territorial expansion, to the following:

  • Rome had a better political structure, which allowed for more effective and consistent mobilization of the population, and
  • Rome’s political changes came slowly, which prevented shocks to the system that would inevitably derail or delay a civilization’s growth.  Such shocks could be compared to long bouts of illness in an individual.

I certainly prefer these explanations to geographical explanations, but I feel one needs to go deeper.  Politics flows downstream from culture, and culture from religion, and it is here that I feel the answer must lie.  To get at religious differences we need to look not at particular beliefs or religious rites, but what those beliefs and rites point to.  To get at that question, we need to examine their mythologies, for if nothing else, it shows us how they perceived themselves and gets at their motivations.

On the surface of things Greece and Rome look much alike, but their myths tell a different story.  The story of Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, reveals the Greek passion for perfection.  Pygmalion eschews women because none he sees truly merit his affection.  He carves his thoughts into a perfect stone sculpture, and Aphrodite rewards him for his devotion by having the statue come to life, and they live happily ever after.  We see this pursuit of perfection in other areas of Greek life, in the Parthenon, in their mathematical idealism, and so on.

When Livy writes of Rome’s early days he recounts how Romulus and the early founders of Rome–all men–needed women. So they come up with an idea of a religious festival and invited young ladies from the Sabines. When they came they abducted and forcibly marry them.

When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius.” Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy.

The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and – dearest of all to human nature – would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands, who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion – a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman’s nature.

The tenor of this story fits well within the framework of the rest of Livy’s work.  The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, has some of the same heroic qualities as in the founding myths of other civilizations.  But the story have Romulus kill his brother Remus in a fit of temper for a minor dispute, and the tale takes little pains to justify the deed.

I think that Livy has more actual history in him than others might, but even I would not say that Livy writes history as Thucydides wrote history.  So we must consider why Rome’s foundational stories have this different feel and emphasis.  Two possibilities present themselves:

  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that they did not whitewash things.  They called a spade a spade.  They did not hide the truth about themselves, and so they were much better equipped to deal with reality than those around them
  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that, not only did they not hide their warts, they reveled in them.  In fact, stories like the Romulus/Remus story would not have been viewed as a black spot on their past, but rather, a positive good.  Of all the soft civilizations that surrounded them, Rome and Rome only did what needed to be done.  Rome understood, just as Machiavelli understood, that states need founded by one man, and one man only.  Either Romulus or Remus would have to go, twins or not.

I favor the second option.  If we imagine that Rome’s founding myths and folklore follow the general pattern of most every other civilization (the U.S. included), we should imagine that these stories reflect something of an idealized version of themselves.

Some years ago in our 8th grade ancient history class, a student made a striking comment as we discussed exactly what Rome “meant” by their multiple conquests.  What drove them to expand?  Rome’s religion technically forbade offensive war, and yet Rome never lacked a justification for war when they felt they needed one.  The student suggested that the Romans were not unlike the Assyrians.  The Assyrians conquered (in part at least) as an offering to Ashur, their god of war.  The Romans (though certainly not as rapacious or cruel as the Assyrians) conquered as offering to their god as well, except their god was the city of Rome itself.  Greece could occupy itself with abstractions like ideal perfection but Rome remained very physical in their orientation throughout.  Their god was literally made visible all of the time.  Thus, this physical orientation would require very tangible applications.

Perhaps the key to Rome’s expansion vis a vis Greece lies here.

Machiavelli recorded an intriguing anecdote on Roman religion:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . .

Machiavelli surmises that the Romans wisely manipulated their religion to serve their political or cultural needs.  I agree as far his explanation goes, but I think we can go one further.  The Romans had a conscious religion of oracles, auguries, and the like, but a deeper, perhaps even unconscious religion of worship of their city itself.  I’m not so sure that Appius would have received censure had he been victorious.

I remain grateful to this student, who years ago helped me see the history of Rome in a new light.

Dave

*Though it has little to do with the post above, I cannot resist commenting on some reviews of Rostovtzeff’s work.  He emigrated from Russia shortly after the Russian Revolution.  His experience of events in Russia certainly impacted his analysis of Rome, where he saw the decline of the Republic in terms of 1) Too much change too quickly, and 2) Given the size of Rome, too much power shifted into the hands of too many (he felt that democracies needed to be small in size to work well).

Some dismiss him out of hand, because, obviously, his experience in Russia strongly colored his analysis of Roman politics.  Well, ok.  But a man is surely more than his influences.  What of the merits of Rostovtzeff’s analysis?  It can be debated, but his interpretations is hardly crazy, or such an obvious byproduct of personal experience that it has nothing to do with the evidence.  These same reviewers, I’m sure, would not want their own work subjected to the tests they used for Rostovtzeff.

Though C.S. Lewis’ original discussion of the “personal heresy” applied directly to poetry, I think it applies also to works of history as well, which are acts of creation somewhat akin to poetry.

 

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8th Grade: The Values of the Republic, The Practice of the Army

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at Rome by looking at the establishment of the Republic in 508 B.C., and how that related to power sharing between Patricians and Plebians.

We can see a variety of similarities between Rome’s revolution, and our own, and this comparison surely would have pleased on our own founding fathers.  But that does not necessarily mean that we should see democracy, in the technical sense of the word, in either time.    The Romans came to object to their kings for the following reasons:

1. Arbitrary and Personal Power

Ultimately, Roman kings did not have to use law as the basis of their rule.  They could, in the end, do as they pleased.  Law had the advantages of being public and stable.  Rulers could now be accountable to something outside of themselves

2. Secret Power

When kings make decisions, they often do so in secret,  perhaps with a few advisors.  Whether he took counsel or not, the reasons behind the decision would be unknown.  The Romans wanted to create a government where decisions got made in an open forum, with open debate.

3. Concentrated Power

In the pure monarchies all power flows from one source at all times.  The Romans took political power and divided it among various offices and branches.  They then made sure that they always had more than one person serving in a particular office.  Finally, each of their offices had only one year terms, and while they did not outright forbid serving multiple terms, they frowned sternly  upon it.

The best way to think about what the Romans did is to go to the technical definition of a Republic – a “Res Publica” – a “Public Thing.”  Laws, expectations, debates, all these things were out in the open for the Romans.  We should not expect to see the kind of democracy that Athens practiced here, though Rome’s republic certainly had democratic elements.  Their main priority lay in making sure that the government was “public” — open to debate, open to observation, etc.

This does not mean that the Romans established a democracy, though they did broaden the base of political power.  Still, for the most part power stayed in the hands of the Patricians, Rome’s aristocracy.  This happened not necessarily by design, but certain factors heavily contributed to it.

  • The Senate (comprised almost entirely of Patricians) had almost complete control of War and Peace.  Rome was often at war, and often won, which naturally enhanced the prestige and power of the Senate.  We have seen in our own democracy that whenever a foreign policy crisis strikes, domestic issues invariably take a back-seat.  Such was the relationship between the Assembly and the Senate in Rome.
  • As we noted last week, Rome was strongly traditional in its cultural leanings, and the Patricians had a vested interest in maintaining tradition.
  • The differences in wealth between Patricians and Plebians remained modest for most of the Republic’s history.  As we shall see in a few weeks, when this begins to change the Patricians faced more challenges to their power.
  • Finally, nothing succeeds like success.  For centuries, Rome grew and prospered under the general guidance of patricians.

The argument went deeper than this, however.  At root the question of, “What is Rome,” ran underneath the surface arguments.  For Patricians, Rome was an idea.  Rome’s ideals made Rome great, and Rome could only stay great if the people who led had dedication to those ideals.  For Plebians, Rome’s people made Rome great, and so Rome’s people deserved a greater share of power.  This tension would bubble beneath the surface for a long time, and how Rome eventually dealt with the problem would contribute to the unraveling of the Republic itself.

We also looked the basic grid plan of Roman cities, and discussed what they reflect about Rome.

Nothing shocks us here, but the methodical nature of the design reflects a few key Roman values, such as simplicity and unity.  The design pushes people toward the center, with an emphasis on togetherness.  The grid plan may also hint at the idea of equality, or at least equality under the law.

As Rome expanded they “cut and pasted” their city design into the conquered areas.  Rome valued habit, tradition, and togetherness.  They tended to look down on “going your own way” in general, and as we might expect, in the army as well.  The key to their military success lie in the fact that everyone stayed together, everyone did what they were told.

The values that went into the formation of their government and city design also went into their army, whether consciously or not. The standard Roman military formation looks somewhat like its city design, with the men spread out in checkerboard fashion:

Rome’s design gave them more flexibility of movement in the field, but each “maniple,” or individual grouping, had a high level of discipline.  This clip below, manages in 1:30 to show some of those values (warning: not bloody, but violent).

Greece, being a more individualistic society, had a long history of heroic individuals.  In Roman stories, the hero is Rome itself.  The clip illustrates a few key ideas along these lines:

  • When the whistle blows, the front lines move back, and others move up.  Normally soldiers would fight in front for much longer than the clip shows, but the principle is clear: we all share the burden equally.
  • Roman tactics, like their other values, were simple.  Block with the shield, strike with the sword around the enemy’s waist, step back into formation.  With this basic move they conquered much of the world around them.
  • No one gets out of line.  They do not tolerate even the successful “hero.”  Rome itself will always get the credit.  The cohesiveness of the line reflects the cohesive nature of their society.  And these cohesive military formations gave them a great advantage over other less cohesive, more heroically oriented tribes surrounding them.  In these kinds of circumstances, Rome simply did not lose.

Here is a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, where you see the Roman army advance in their maniples.  The message seems to be that the city of Rome itself has come to fight as they fan out into their grid pattern.

Next week we will begin to look at Rome’s conflict with Carthage, a struggle that would define the destinies of both societies.

Have a great weekend,

Dave

10th Grade: Romanticism

Greetings,

This week we looked at Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic movement.  Last week in our examination of  the Enlightenment, we said that it both built upon the past (Scientific Revolution) and reacted against it (Louis XIV’s Versailles).  So Romanticism both reacted against the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and built upon its rejection of current society.

We think of the Romantics praising the virtues of emotion, but we should not interpret the word ’emotion’ in a narrow sense.  Rousseau focused more on our ‘gut,’ or our ‘inner man.’  For Romantics society itself was humanity’s enemy.  All of its trappings, like wigs, crevattes, five-fork dinners, etc. put a ridiculous husk over the kernel of our true selves.  Anyone who ever felt uncomfortable among the wine and cheese set, for example, can identify with at least some of what Rousseau preached.  Manners and mores, if taken too far, can be elitist, exclusionary, and anti-human.  When we consider that the picture to the left depicted actual hairstyles as worn by aristocratic ladies, we begin to identify with what the Romantics advocated.  Rousseau wanted to return to what was “natural.”  It makes sense, then, that one of his main causes involved getting mothers to breast feed their own children, rather than handing them over to wet-nurses.

Rousseau and the Romantics wanted to free people from society to live as they were truly meant to live.

For them, mankind need not fear logic and reason, but instead  needed to realize that they do not come first in human development.  We add them later, whereas our emotions arise naturally from within us from the very start.  Reason, on the other hand, must be imposed from without.  So our ‘guts’ are better guides to behavior than our reason.

From a Christian perspective one can say that God gave both emotion and reason, and that both can guide us to truth.  We come back to the idea of truth in tension.  Unfortunately we see the abandonment of this tension in Rousseau, who thought for example, that the tragic Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment against cities.  C.S. Lewis’ famous essay “Men Without Chests” makes the point that, as valuable as our heads and our guts are, they need the “Chest” to act as a moral mediator.  Separated from right moral guidance, both emotion and reason turn tyrant. Jonah Goldberg has a humorous but insightful take on what happens when men are left to their own devices here.  When the forces of Enlightenment and Romanticism combined and then turned against each other in the French Revolution, the results would be less humorous.

Like the Enlightenment movement, the Romantics were on to at least a part of something.  One example of this is the idea of breastfeeding.  For centuries women in the elite of society considered it “vulgar” to breastfeed their own children and farmed them out to wet-nurses. One of the first goals of the “Romantic” movement was to get women to see that what was “natural” in this case was good.  What could be more “unnatural” than the separation of mother and infant child?  And yet, such practices persisted.

The problem of course lay in how one defined “natural.”  If every “natural” thing has a direct moral imperative, then we must define “natural” very carefully.  Like the Enlightenment then, the Romantics did not see the world or humanity as basically fallen, and this would bring forth terrible consequences in due course.

We looked at the tragic case of Louis XVI.  In him we have a good man who, in turbulent times, lacked the foresight to be a good king.  As a French king, he probably thought that supporting the Americans against the British was just something that French kings do.  But Louis’ aid to the colonies, which involved people trying to overthrow a monarchy, can be compared to bringing the kudzu plant to the U.S.  You are importing your own destruction, though Louis likely did not see this, just as we did not with the infamous plant.  When an idea (like some plants) gets transplanted away from its native soil the results may be much different than we anticipated.

As the official diplomat to Paris, Ben Franklin knew exactly what chord to strike with the French.  He knew that the French idealized the Americans as fulfilling Rousseau’s dream of living close to nature, and milked that as much as possible.  To the left is a famous portrait of Rousseau, and the outfit Franklin donned for his portrait in France while on a diplomatic mission.

Louis attempted to enact many helpful reforms, and this makes his tragedy more poignant.  Many have the mistaken idea that France rebelled against a decrepit regime bent on maintaining the status quo at all costs.  In fact, many philosophes felt that France had the perfect king for the times.  Louis worked hard at fiscal responsibility.  He abandoned much of the waste and foolishness of Versailles. He avidly patronized the sciences, and founded the first known school anywhere for the blind.  France did not rebel against a king who refused to change, they rebelled against a king who tried hard to modernize France.  We shall have to unpack the significance of this later when we look at his trial under the Revolutionary government.

Usually no matter how often we criticize our Presidents we profess admiration for our First Ladies.  Not so in France.  Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was hated almost from the moment she set foot in the country.  Many stood against her from the very start, but her actions, innocent though many may have been did not help her cause.

The bad press began the moment the French found out that Louis’ bride hailed from Austria, a traditional rival of France, a step-child.  Louis, and thus France as a whole, was seen as “marrying down.”

Strike one against Marie.

Marie was desperate to please.  So, if the above picture showed how high-born ladies should wear their hear, she would do one better.   She wore this hairstyle (the picture is accurate, not satirical) to commemorate a French naval victory.   The French, with their vicious eye for taste, could easily detect when someone tries too hard.

So, as the Romantic movement gained acceptance, the pendulum swung the other way.  Marie eagerly dove headfirst into the new style.  She would be “simple.”  She asked Louis to build her a special estate where she and her friends could pretend to be farm girls and feed sheep, milk cows, and so on.  Again, Marie seems to be “trying too hard” to almost ludicrous proportions.

Her friend Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted the famous portrait of her to the left.

This new image would surely work, right?  In this portrait she was elegantly simple, just as Rousseau would want her.  Marie very much hopedInstead, once again the French detected desperation, someone who obviously was not “natural.”   “You are queen of France.  Act like one, dress like one!”  the French seemed to say.  Marie did not figure out how to act like a queen to anyone’s liking, perhaps not even her own.

When Marie finally had children, she settled down, and enjoyed her role as a mother.  But much damage had already been done.  Part of this damage stemmed from the personality differences between Louis and Marie.  Introverted Louis never liked parties, and used any excuse to retire early (one source indicates that Marie purposely set Louis’ clocks ahead in hopes of having Louis retire even earlier).  Once Louis left, Marie felt like she could cut loose, and played cards and danced the night away.   Much of this behavior was very likely innocent, but it raised many eyebrows, and rumors flew.  Louis, did what any wealthy, decent, and befuddled husband might do and bought her lots of expensive things.  Marie got the blame for this, not Louis.  In time various epitaphs floated around France, including, “The Austrian Whore,” and “Madame Deficit.”  Marie could never understand the impact of her actions, and how important image was to her success in politics.

Next week we will see Louis lose control of events in the French Revolution, and how France’s abandonment of what Lewis called “the chest” would wreak terrible havoc.

 

 

Dave

12th Grade: The Battleground of Democratic Ideas

Greetings,

This year we have examined how democracies function across time and space.  What do they do well?  What challenges put great stress upon them?  Are their paths that democracies generally take that they should always avoid?  Under the umbrella of these big picture questions, we begin the year looking at the French-Algerian War from 1954-62.

I chose this conflict to study for a variety of reasons:

  • The conflict is a recent example of a western democratic power fighting both against and amongst Moslems
  • The conflict is far enough removed from us to allow objective analysis, and to allow us to see its ripple effects
  • The French dealt with many similar issues as we currently do in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq (such as the use of torture, attempts to win over local populations, etc.)
  • The excellent movie  (based largely in actual events) The Battle of Algiers is a great tie-in to our study

We introduced a few key background concepts before delving into the main events.

1. Why did France feel the absolute need to win in Algeria?

From the time of Charlemagne (or perhaps even dating back to the pre-Romanized Gauls) France was regarded as having the world’s pre-eminent military, from the Charlemagne, the Crusades, to Joan of Arc, to Napoleon.  In W.W. I they fought heroically and with great determination.  In 1940, however, they suffered a humiliating and shockingly quick defeat to the Nazi’s.  Desperately seeking to regain their pre-war glory, they did not give up their colonies (unlike their friendly rival England).  They lost again in humiliating fashion in 1954 in Southeast Asia — but they would not lose in Algeria.  This was where they would prove to the world that France was still France after all.

The French began colonizing Algeria as far back as 1830, and over time millions of French had come to live there.  As France’s reputation declined in the post-W.W. II years, Algeria became the place where they staked their reputation as a nation “good for the world.”  France was still France after all, a bastion of liberty and democratic, western ideals.  Algeria would be their proving ground.  They would bring the blessings of their civilization to North Africa.  They would show how Moslems could prosper in a western context.  Many other European powers shed their colonial empires after W.W. II.  France left S.E. Asia with their tails between their legs.  They granted independence to a few other colonies.  But not Algeria.  Algeria would be different.  Algeria would prove the validity of western ideals across cultures and the globe.

We shall see how this psychological and cultural attitude influenced how they fought

2. What is the battleground in an insurgent campaign?

As a modern “First-World” country, the French could easily outspend and outmuscle the Algerians who opposed them.  The Algerians naturally quickly turned to guerilla tactics.  It seems clear that the French thought that the battle was against the insurgents primarily, and so put their military foot forward almost exclusively.

Why did this fail?  What is the primary battleground in an insurgent campaign?  Is it the people, or is it an idea?  If so, what role can the military play?  What role does the government and people play?  In our discussion, one student suggested that the only way France could have saved its position in Algeria was through lots of apologies for their poor treatment of them, and lots of financial and social programs to rectify the situation.   In other words, was the problem a military one at all?

Well, it certainly might have been.  But there is a difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.’  In large measure,* France’s problem was that their use of the military was their strategy.  It was not used as a ‘tactic’ in a broader campaign.

How does an army battle an idea?  As one student suggested last year, the only way to do defeat an idea is to have a better one. Did the French, in fact, have a better idea?  If they did, how did they present it?

3. What happens when an army fights in disconnected way from its country’s values?

There is a great deal of evidence that French troops tortured and killed some prisoners as a matter of policy.  This was done with the tacit approval of French politicians, but not the French people.  As revelations of the torture emerged, the French public began to turn against the war, feeling betrayed by the army.  The army in turn felt betrayed by the people.  This tension between identity and actions needed resolution in some way — and the result was one successful military coup that put De Gaulle in as president, and another coup attempt that failed to get De Gaulle out of power a few years later.

Why are cultural and political values an important ‘weapon’ in a war?  Under what circumstances can we depart from those values?  How is a country’s identity a part of its strategy in conflict?

4. Related to #3, what should the role of the press be in a free society?

Next week we will discuss a few different options related to this question.  Opinions differ. . .

  • Some say the press should be an entirely objective entity, focused on presenting ‘just the facts.’  But, however much of an ideal this is, it is rarely, if ever attained.
  • Others argue that the press should be an implicit supporter of the government, or the majority.  This does not mean ignoring obvious truths, but it would mean using the press as a means to ‘rally the people.’
  • Still others assert that the press should be oriented ‘against’ the government.  That is, the press’ main function is to provide an alternate viewpoint apart from the government’s message.  The government gets its chance, the press provides the people with ‘the other side of the story.’

This week we watched and discussed The Battle of Algiers.  Our discussion and analysis of it will help form the basis of our own insurgency game coming up in a couple of weeks.

Here is the preview for the movie, which is also available (I believe) to watch in full on You Tube.

Sincerely,

Dave Mathwin

*France did attempt some small scale political reforms, but almost everyone viewed it as ‘too little, too late.’

10th Grade: Truth in Tension

Greetings.

This week we returned to Europe in the mid 18th century and began to look at the ideas that shaped the coming French Revolution.  In this “Prelude to the Revolution” unit I hope that students will see that ideas have consequences.  The French pursued truth, or at least what they believed to be truth, with a passion, but this pursuit nearly destroyed them as they attempted to entirely remake their nation from the ground up.

How then, can we recognize truth?

Christians have many answers at their disposal to this question, but we discussed in class that many of our foundational truths are truths in tension.  So we see that God is one God in three persons, Christ is fully God and fully Man, Scripture is the Word of God written by men, and so on.  Sometimes we can know that we are close to Truth when we feel pulled in different directions at once.

Christians also realize that Ultimate Reality (God Himself) is personal, not abstract or propositional.  In inviting us to know Him, God does not want us primarily to know truths about Him (though this too is necessary), but to have a relationship with Him.  So truth must have an incarnational, or personal aspect to it for it to fully achieve the status of “Truth.”

French society needed reform in the mid-18th century.  The dominance Louis XIV bought came at a cost, and one cost was the inherent contradictions that Louis’s France left unresolved, and in fact widened.   When untethered from “truth in tension” we might expect wild swings or “over-corrections” in the ideas and solutions of the time.  The Enlightenment is no exception.  But the Church needs to have judgment begin at home, for it was precisely the Church’s relative weakness in the aftermath of the wars of religion and the Scientific Revolution that opened the door for people to seek truth elsewhere.

The Enlightenment had many noble motives and goals.  Many “philosophes” (as French Enlightenment philosophers were known) saw that society had become a kind of anachronism, guided by long outdated feudal customs.  Certain areas in society operated autonomously, without reason or justice.  Many stories abound for example, of “press-gangs” rounding up derelicts or drunks and forcing them into the navy or infantry.  From the perspective of many, society seemed to be made only for the elite, or for those with connections, or special, secret knowledge (the echoes of Louis’s ridiculous system at Versailles form a good example).  Enlightenment thinkers sought to free society from archaic mystery and make it livable for the common man.  Reason’s clear light revealed the absurdity of class and privilege.  The Philosophes prided themselves as sensible men.  Ben Franklin, for example, records basic advice like, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  No wild Platonistic musings here, thank you very much.

One sees this spirit animating their music as well.  Haydn, for example, wanted to write for the farmer and tradesman, so his music has a popular danceability to it that one immediately perceives.  Odd meter changes, wild swings in tempo, and so on might have been perceived as “elitist,” or inaccessible.

In the early Enlightenment one also sees a glorification of the everyday.  Those outside the nobility, like Christopher Wren in England, got picked to design St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Enlightenment era paintings depicted women realistically, and showed life as it was really lived by most people.  It elevated simple pleasures of good company and conversation.

For centuries the Church had controlled much of daily life, especially education.  This too needed freed for “the people.”  With people loosed from institutional religion, they would be freed to be their “natural” religious selves.   No more obscure doctrines, no more mystery, just the clear light of reason.  So in the end, society, education, religion, culture — all this seemed to come down from their pedestals on high and into the people’s hands.  The early years of the Enlightenment must have been quite exciting.

But this excitement masked certain key problems.

For all of their realism and so-called common sense, the philosophes tended to be quite unrealistic about human nature.  For them, part of their liberation from mankind meant liberating them from their sense of sin.  “You’re not bad, just ignorant!”  But in severing people from their sense of sin they dehumanized them.  We know we sin, and we know that it is part of being human to sin.  To say that sin doesn’t exist makes us less responsible, and if we are less responsible, we are less human.  Again, Enlightenment thinkers surely thought they were doing mankind a favor by removing the idea of punishment for sin.  I want the students to appreciate the Enlightenment’s strengths, but the tragic irony of the Enlightenment is while they sought to liberate they set us on a path of potential slavery.  We deserve to be held responsible for sin because we are human beings responsible for our actions.  Dogs are not responsible for their actions.  C.S. Lewis elaborates on this in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

The Enlightenment frowned on mystery.  We know that many key doctrines of Christianity are mysteries at heart, but what about other areas?  Is not life itself mysterious?  What about love?  Guys, what about women?  Again, to be fully human we must have a sense of mystery about our existence.  In its eagerness to redress an imbalance, the Enlightenment abandoned “truth in tension” and created other kinds of problems, some worse than those it fixed.

The ironic tragedy of the Enlightenment is that while they sought to liberate, they ended up dehumanizing people on a path to slavery, for dehumanization is the first step towards control.  One sees this in subtle ways in the “Smile of Reason”  in many philosophe portrayals:

The constant tight-lipped smile of these reasonable, agreeable people tips the hand of the Enlightenment.  As Clarke notes, the philosophes might smile, but never laugh.  They restricted what it meant to be human.  Life can be enjoyed, but only in moderation.  They prized control above all else.

I don’t want to overreach, but the Enlightenment insistence on control paved the way for some of the tyrannies of the French Revolution and beyond.  The Enlightenment gave us good things to be sure.  No doubt many good Christians made the best of what the Enlightenment had to offer.  But its legacy, like all heresies, continues to haunt us.

Blessings,

Dave

 

8th Grade: Burning Out vs. Fading Away

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our look at ancient Greek civilization.  The death of Alexander the Great allowed for the Greek city-states to try and rebel once more from Macedon.  They did not have the strength to do it on their own, so they asked for help from Rome.

As the Greek’s found out, however, it’s dangerous to ask Rome over to visit.  They had a knack for overstaying their welcome.  From around 200-150 B.C., Greece became a satellite of the then mighty Romans.  Their culture lived on in a kind of degenerated way afterwards (see Luke’s comment in Acts 17:21), but as an independent political entity, they were done.

As we leave Greece and introduce Rome I wanted the students to think about the following choice.  I chose basketball because of March Madness, but one could apply the same concept to other areas of life.  In class we had fun thinking about the ultimate hamburger, for example.

Choice #1

You will be given the ability to dunk, but only one time.  However, this dunk can be the most spectacular dunk you can possibly imagine.  You can jump from half-court, do a double summersault reverse spin, twirl, reverse jam — whatever you can think of.  Furthermore, you will execute this dunk in stadium full of people, and it will immediately go viral on You Tube.  The dunk will be forever known as the greatest dunk of all time.

Or

Choice #2

You will be given the ability to dunk as often as you like.  You will be able to dunk in games, but the dunks will be unimpressive, and not noteworthy in any way.  But it will be a dunk, and you will be able to do it whenever you wish.

This choice illustrates one of the differences between Greece and Rome.  In their heyday Greece ended up bequeathing more towards the formation of the future than perhaps any other civilization.  They practically invented science, literature, drama, democracy, and so on.  But their run was relatively brief.  They followed Neil Young’s dictum, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”  They compressed most of their brilliance into about a 100 year period of practically unmatched excellence, but the intensity of the heat may have led to their fire putting itself by devouring all the oxygen around them.

Rome will have many similarities with Greece, as we might expect from sharing the Mediterranean basin.  But I think that one of their differences is that Rome would not have agreed with Neil Young.  They were good, sometimes very good, at most things they tried.  And they managed consistently to achieve this level of “very good” for much longer than Greece maintained their “excellent” status.  But, the Romans never achieved the level of brilliance of Greece.

What kind of dunk the students choose will probably reflect what side they will defend in one of our year’s great debates on whether Greece was superior to Rome, or vice-versa.

Next we will examine Roman civilization.  As usual we will begin with geography.  If we look at a topographical map of Italy, how might we expect Italian geography to influence Roman civilization?  How might this differ from how Greek geography influenced the Greeks?

More on this next week.

Many thanks,

Dave

Cortes and Alexander the Great

Sometimes how historical figures are perceived has much more to do with how perceptions change over time than what people actually did in their own lifetimes.  Sometimes certain people in the past take on a romantic hue that also can distort our vision.

I thought about this phenomena while reading Five Letters of Cortes, a collection of letters Cortes sent 51iimHx9yvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_back to the continent detailing events in Mexico.  The book interested me because historians today routinely treat Cortes as a great villain, and I wanted to see how he measured up to that reputation in his own words. Scholars of course debate the veracity of some details Cortes narrates (without giving much credence to the idea that he simply told the truth as he saw it).  But my interest was not what happened so much as how Cortes wanted his readers to perceive him, regardless of whether or not he spoke fairly and truly.

As I read I thought of how history views Alexander the Great.  The two men have some similarities. Both sought glory, perhaps Alexander most of all.  Both conquered and destroyed a foreign people and culture with at least questionable justification.  Both dealt with internal disputes in their own ranks. Both used diplomacy to great effect, perhaps Cortes most of all.  And yet, history loves Alexander and despises Cortes, generally speaking, and we should ask why.

A few things stood out to me in Cortes’ letters.

  • Cortes de-emphasizes violence and tries to play up his relationship with the natives when he can.  He writes early in the first letter that, “the Indians went among us with as little fear as if they had already had dealings with us for many years.”  He seems proudest when he makes friends.  The “battles” (not battles in a traditional sense) and violence that occur happen when things break down, or in response to a tough situation initiated (in Cortes’ view) by the misunderstanding of the natives.
  • Cortes clearly admires the natives.  A modern westerner expecting to find a racially motivated imperialist will be disappointed.  He describes the sacrifices and violence surrounding Aztec religion in a lengthy passage:

And always on the day before some important enterprise they burn incense in their temples, and sometimes even sacrifice their own persons, some cutting out their tongues, others their ears, still others slicing their bodies with knives in order to offer to their idols the blood which flows from their wounds; sometimes sprinkling the whole of the temple with blood and throwing it up in the air, and many other fashions of sacrifice they use . . .

One very horrible and abominable custom they have which we have seen in no other part, and that is that whenever they wish to beg anything of their idols, in order that their petition may find more acceptance, they take large numbers of boys and girls and even of grown men and women and tear out their heart and bowels while still alive, burning them in the presence of those idols . . .  Some of us have actually seen this done and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing that they have ever seen.  . . . Your majesties can therefore be certain that there can be no year in which they have not sacrificed some three to four thousand souls.

As to what the Spanish should do in light of this, I leave the reader to decide.  Cortes continues,

Your majesties may therefore perceive whether it is their duty to prevent such loss and evil, and certainly it will be pleasing to God if by means of, and under the protection of your royal majesties, these people are introduced to and instructed in the Holy Catholic Faith . . .

And yet, after describing the most horrible aspect of Aztec society, Cortes concludes the section by writing,

For it is certain that if they should ever serve God with that same faith, fervor, and diligence [as their idols] they would work many miracles.   We believe that by the aid of interpreters who should plainly declare to them the truths of the Holy Faith and the error in which they are, many, perhaps all of them, would quickly depart from their evil ways and come to true knowledge, for they live more equably and reasonably than any other of the tribes which we have hitherto come across.

Cortes also hates the fact that some of the Spanish use the Indians as currency in slaves.  This, he argues, earns the “notorious” Diego Velazquez followers, and Cortes urges the king to remove him from any position of authority at once.

Spanish commentary on the Aztec king Montezuma strike a poignant note.  Multiple sources all converge on the idea of admiration for the man.  Here is Diaz de Casillo writing,

The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him.”

When Moctezuma was allegedly killed by being stoned to death by his own people Cortés and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead. We even blamed the Mercederian friar for not having persuaded him to become a Christian.

Of course Cortes used violence at times directly and on purpose, however much he wanted to avoid it. In one such instance, we have both Aztec and Spanish sources for the same event.  Regarding a terrible massacre, the Aztecs write,

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed, they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods

At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle.
They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere.
Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away.
At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces.
They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go.
Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them.
The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air.
And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place.
When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!”

Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

And the Spanish version of the same event:

Cortes wanted to entirely understand the cause of the Indians’ rebellion. He interrogated them [the Spaniards] altogether. Some said it was caused by the message sent by Narváez, others because the people wanted to toss the Spaniards out of Mexico [Tenochtitlan], which had been planned as soon as the ships had arrived, because while they were fighting they shouted “Get out!” at them. Others said it was to liberate Moctezuma, for they fought saying, “Free our god and King if you don’t want to die!” Still others said it was to steal the gold, silver, and jewels that the Spaniards had, because they heard the Indians say, “Here you shall leave the gold that you have taken!” Again, some said it was to keep the Tlaxcalans and other mortal enemies out of Mexico. Finally, many believed that taking their idols as gods, they had given themselves to the devil.

Any of these things would have been enough to cause the rebellion, not to mention all of them together. But the principal one was that a few days after Cortes left to confront Narváez, it became time for a festival the Mexicas wanted to celebrate in their traditional way. . . . They begged Pedro de Alvarado to give them his permission, so [the Spaniards] wouldn’t think that they planned to kill them. Alvarado consented provided that there were no sacrifices, no people killed, and no one had weapons.

More than 600 gentlemen and several lords gathered in the yard of the largest temple; some said there were more than a thousand there. They made a lot of noise with their drums, shells, bugles, and hendidos, which sounded like a loud whistle. Preparing their festival, they were naked, but covered with precious stones, pearls, necklaces, belts, bracelets, many jewels of gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl, wearing very rich feathers on their heads. They performed a dance called the mazeualiztli, which is called that because it is a holiday from work [symbolized by the word for farmer, macehaulli]. . . . They laid mats in the patio of the temple and played drums on them. They danced in circles, holding hands, to the music of the singers, to which they responded.

The songs were sacred, and not profane, and were sung to praise the god honored in the festival, to induce him to provide water and grain, health, and victory, or to thank him for healthy children and other things. And those who knew the language and these ceremonial rites said that when the people danced in the temples, they perform very different from those who danced the netoteliztli, in voice, movement of the body, head, arms, and feet, by which they manifested their concepts of good and evil. The Spaniards called this dance, an areito, a word they brought from the islands of Cuba and Santo Domingo.  While the Mexica gentlemen were dancing in the temple yard of Vitcilopuchtli [Huitzilopochtli], Pedro de Alvarado went there. Whether on [the basis of] his own opinion or in an agreement decided by everyone, I don’t know, but some say he had been warned that the Indian nobles of the city had assembled to plot the mutiny and the rebellion, which they later carried out; others, believe that [the Spaniards] went to watch them perform this famous and praised dance, and seeing how rich they were and wanting the gold the Indians were wearing, he [Alvarado] covered each of the entrances with ten or twelve Spaniards and went inside with more than fifty [Spaniards], and without remorse and lacking any Christian piety, they brutally stabbed and killed the Indians, and took what they were wearing.

I have no wish to downplay a terrible massacre.  For our purposes, however, a few things surprised me about the Spanish account.

  • We might expect ‘righteous’ conquistadors rejoicing in their deed.  Some accounts of the Crusaders massacring civilians in Jerusalem in 1099 sound this way.  Instead we them troubled and very much aware of the fact that they departed from their faith with their actions.
  • Confusion, not certainty, dominates the text.  They search for answers and have a hard time understanding what it is they face or why it happened in the first place.  Some historians/sources apparently indicate that the Spanish may have believed that they were about to do another human sacrifice, though the account above does not hint at this or use it as an excuse.

One can disagree with the reasons for the Spanish presence in the new world.  One can lament the results of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent treatment of the natives.  But I found my overall opinion about Cortes changed from reading his writings, though I still lack a great deal of familiarity with the events in general and other particular sources to come to definite conclusions.

But other historians presumably do not.  And this brings us back to my question earlier about comparing Alexander and Cortes.  Some historians fall over themselves fawning about Alexander, and no one treats Cortes this way, despite their similarities.

Alexander had a few points in his favor . . .

  • The fact that he was king and thus the focal point of all narratives about him.  Cortes reported to the emperor, there were other conquistadors, Montezuma is a striking figure, etc.
  • Alexander destroyed the Persians in classic and dramatic pitched battles, the events of which featured himself.  The Aztecs died partly as a result of cunning diplomacy, Montezuma’s attitude, some skirmishes, etc.  Lacking a Battle of Issus or Gaugemela, we have a hard time latching onto Cortes to fully appreciate his skills (you don’t have to approve of Cortes to admire certain aspects of him).
  • Alexander operated within a “heroic” culture where for the most part, great deeds needed no particular justification. Even modern treatments of Alexander pick up on this, consciously or no.  I can’t recall any in depth discussion from ancient writers, for example, about Alexander’s motives, or the justice of his cause.  They simply don’t matter.  Cortes operated within a much different (and certainly superior) moral framework that calls much of the Spanish enterprise into question.
  • Of course we cannot discount the fact that, however well intentioned Cortes may have been, those that followed often exploited the natives for wealth and personal gain.  We should not directly blame Cortes for this, but his association with it taints him inevitably, and perhaps with some justice.

Of course unlike Alexander, Cortes never killed those close to him out of paranoia or political expediency (i.e. as Alexander did with Parmenio and Callisthenes), nor did he murder his friends in fits of drunken rage (Cleitus).  But these acts usually get overlooked amidst the grandeur of Gaugemela.

Whatever we may think of Cortes, sifting through accumulated historiography about him is a tricky business, especially in light of his own words.